Topic: Government and Politics

Selling the Rope with Which They’ll Hang Capitalism

From the Washington Post:

Late last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began broadcasting television ads that extolled several Republican lawmakers for supporting the new Medicare prescription drug program. The spots were part of the chamber’s $10 million midterm advertising and voter mobilization budget.

Even if the Medicare expansion were popular – which is not at all clear – the Chamber of Commerce’s ads would just encourage voters to increasingly expect transfers and handouts from Washington. If the Chamber of Commerce praises Republicans for expanding entitlements by a trillion dollars over the next decade, then it’s just contributing to an environment in which spending and deficits and unfunded liabilities continue to soar. Surely the Chamber could find something good the Republicans have done to highlight in its ads.

Couldn’t it?

Dog Bites Man

The Washington Post reports that Jack B. Johnson, county executive of Prince George’s County in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, is very generous to his friends. Since he took office,

…15 of his friends and political supporters have been awarded 51 county contracts totaling nearly $3.3 million, according to records and interviews.

In several cases, Johnson awarded county contracts to supporters after he failed to persuade the County Council or others to place them in county jobs. He has also created at least a dozen high-profile positions and filled them with supporters, including fraternity brothers. Some of those who received contracts or jobs had no expertise in the field, and others did not produce written reports required by the county.

In one case, Johnson hired a friend’s company, which produces a local cable show, to write a report on school construction financing and then gave him two more contracts to evaluate economic trends. He gave a similar contract to his campaign chairman.

Perhaps the surprise is that this is considered front-page news. What politicians don’t hand out tax-funded benefits to their friends? Certainly the various scandals swirling around the Republican Congress – involving Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, and others – provide fresh reminders.

As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, one of the earliest and most charming descriptions of political reality came from Lord Bolingbroke, an English Tory leader in the early 18th century. He wrote to a friend:

I am afraid that we came to Court in the same dispositions as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employments to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us and of hurting those who stood in opposition to us.

Jack Johnson should tell the Post, “Yeah, what he said!” But Johnson doesn’t have to reach back to Lord Bolingbroke for a precedent. In the same part of Libertarianism: A Primer, I told the story of Johnson’s predecessor as Prince George’s County Executive:

A particularly striking illustration of what we might call Bolingbroke’s Law is the record of Maryland governor Parris Glendening. Elected in 1994, Glendening seemed a clean, honest, moderate, technocratic former professor. He might give Maryland big government, but at least it would be clean government. So what did he do when he took office? Well, here’s how the Washington Post described his first budget:

In his first major act as Maryland governor, Parris N. Glendening unveiled a no-new-taxes budget that unabashedly steers the biggest share of spending to the three areas that voted most strongly for him: Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore.

Lord Bolingbroke, call your office. A few days later, it turned out that Glendening and his top aide were collecting tens of thousands of dollars in early pension payments from Prince George’s County, where Glendening served as County Executive until his election as governor, thanks to Glendening’s creative interpretations of rules that gave early pension benefits to government employees who suffered “involuntary separation” from their jobs. Glendening decided that officials not allowed to seek reelection because of term limits, such as the two-term limit on the County Executive, had been “involuntarily separated” from their jobs. And he “demanded” the resignations of his top aides a month before he left his county job–making them also victims of “involuntary separation”–whereupon he hired them as his top aides in the governor’s mansion.

Like the Energizer bunny, the Glendening money train just kept on going. In May the governor asked the legislature to spend $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to rescue a struggling high-tech firm in Prince George’s County headed by one of his political supporters. Then in August, Frank W. Stegman, the state secretary of labor, licensing, and regulation, hired the wife of Theodore J. Knapp, the state personnel secretary and a colleague of Stegman’s from the Prince George’s government, for a job in his agency. No ingrate, personnel secretary Knapp then returned the favor by recommending a $10,000 raise in Stegman’s meager $100,542 salary.

Politicians reward their friends. What else is new? The best way to limit the damage from this sort of corruption is to limit government to a few specific functions and leave most important services in the marketplace.

Ned Lamont, Fiscal Conservative?

A Washington Post feature says that Connecticut Senate challenger Ned Lamont’s website shows him to be “a fiscal conservative, a social liberal and a foreign-policy moderate.” (The Post also refers to Lamont’s 150-word statements on the issues as “elaborate position papers,” which seems to reflect low expectations for political discourse.) Since I expressed doubt a couple of days ago about the existence of fiscally conservative Democrats, I was intrigued.

So what does the website show? Lamont is indeed socially liberal, for better (opposition to gay marriage bans, creationism, the Terri Schiavo intervention, stem cell restrictions, and other schemes to impose conservative moral values on other people) and worse (support for hate crimes laws, affirmative action, and other schemes to impose his moral values on other people).

But “fiscal conservative”? Let’s go to the tape. On his website he promises to spend more money on national health insurance, universal preschool, all-day schools, “an overarching plan for clean energy and energy independence,” and “a serious, long-range infrastructure plan to upgrade our schools, public transportation, highways, our sewage treatment, and our levees in below sea-level areas [and] a transportation strategy which interconnects cities and suburbs, inner cities and jobs and affordable housing, and ports and airports.” Sounds expensive.

(As a good big-government liberal, he’s also opposed to school choice, private Social Security accounts, and free trade. But our subject today is taxes and spending.)

Virtually all the references to “budget” on Lamont’s site are boasts of how he increased various budgets as a city councilman. He has declared his opposition to earmarks, but of course earmarks – while notorious – are only a tiny part of the federal budget. Nowhere does he promise a balanced budget. He does promise to roll back Bush’s tax cuts – that is, to raise taxes – but that would hardly be sufficient to close the current deficit and pay for his sweeping spending plans, even if higher marginal tax rates did not reduce work, investment, and tax revenue.

Alas, the search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.

New Milestone for Federal Pay

New data was released today by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis on federal employee wages and benefits. The data for 2005 shows that compensation for the average federal civilian worker ($106,579) is now exactly double the average compensation in the U.S. private sector ($53,289).

(See Tables 6.2D, 6.5D, and 6.6D here, www.bea.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/index.asp).

The federal pay advantage has been soaring in recent years. The ratio of average federal to average private compensation increased from 1.51 in 1990, to 1.68 in 2000, to 2.00 today.

Both federal wages and benefits have been galloping ahead. The new data shows that the average federal civilian worker earned $71,114 in wages in 2005, compared to an average $43,917 in the private sector.

I discussed the federal pay advantage based on data for 2004 in a recent bulletin. I thought that new data for 2005 would show the federal advantage narrowing due to strong private sector growth. Instead, the federal advantage increased once again. Average federal wages rose 5.8 percent in 2005 compared to an increase of 3.3 percent in the private sector.

See the full details in a summary spreadsheet here [.xls].

Hollywood for Ugly People

With the weather hotter than Hell here in Washington, and partisan warfare ramping up for the ‘06 elections, there are two pieces today that help remind us what a weird, perverse place Capitol Hill, in particular, has become.

First, in this morning’s New York Times, Mark Leibovich wedges his tongue firmly into his cheek and explores the phenomenon of the “Senators Only” elevators in the Senate.

The basic rule is this: nonsenators are allowed to ride only if asked by a senator. Such invitations typically occur when a reporter is in mid-interview with a senator walking off the Senate floor.

Lobbyists have been known to park themselves outside elevators with attractive young women, the better to win invitations. To be sure, such tactics took place only in earlier eras, when senators held a less enlightened view of women.

(In 1994, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was said to have engaged in excessive touching of his then-freshman colleague Patty Murray of Washington. Ms. Murray later asked for and received an apology from Mr. Thurmond, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time. Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Murray declined to comment.)

[Former Louisiana senator John] Breaux concluded the matter with a nod to the public good: “I think the elevators are designed to keep members of the public from having to ride with senators,” he said.

Then, the New Republic runs a piece on the phenomenon of ostensibly pro-“traditional values” congresscritters jettisoning the ol’ ball and chain back home and taking up with nubile young Washington groupies. The piece could perhaps best be summed up by invoking

Susan LaTourette’s remarks in late 2003, after her husband of 21 years, Representative Steve LaTourette, revealed that he was having an affair with a lobbyist and wanted a divorce. “I think Washington corrupts people,” a furious Susan announced. “He was a wonderful husband and father, the best I ever saw, until he went there. … Now he’s one of them. All they care about is getting reelected. I hate them all.”

What can we do about the inflated egos, insularity, even cults of personality on the Hill? There’s a clear enough solution.

Getting to Government Transparency

There’s technology policy, and there’s how technology affects policy.

That’s why I found my colleague Chris Edwards’ recent Tax & Budget Bulletin so interesting.  He discusses a number of federal databases that bring some transparency to federal spending, including the Federal Assistance Award Data System and the Federal Audit Clearinghouse.  Between them, they reveal quite a bit of information about federal spending and the staggering number and amount of subsidies and grants handed out by the federal government each year.

Edwards also hails a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to create a comprehensive Internet database of federal contracts, grants, and other payments.  It would be a great leap forward in terms of transparency about spending, like the Thomas system was for the legislative process.

Advocates from across the political spectrum want a government that “works.”  Most believe that their perspective would “win” if the politics and government worked.  Whatever the case, transparency is widely agreed to be good — the more the better.

Thomas was an improvement.  Yet it hasn’t transformed the legislative process the way some might have hoped.  Lawmaking remains murky and confusing to the vast majority of the public.  Even if it was done well, a federal spending database probably wouldn’t transform the politics of government spending either.

Information technology will surely help, but transparency isn’t enough.  The twin problems that must be overcome are rational ignorance and rational inaction.  It’s hard to learn about government, and hard to affect it, so people make better uses of their time.  Operating a lemonade stand would be far more lucrative and enjoyable for most people than campaigning for a tax reduction.  (The piece linked here is a good discussion of rational ignorance.)

There are some efforts to defeat the twin plagues of ignorance and inaction.  GovTrack.us, for example, attacks ignorance with more information presented more accessibly than Thomas.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently took after inaction with a wiki devoted to campaigns

My favorite — because I run it — is WashingtonWatch.com.  It displays pending legislation with its price-tag per person, per family, etc. and it gives visitors a chance to air their views.  A little run at ignorance, a little run at inaction.  Given time, it could blossom into transformed government.  In the meantime, the more transparency the better.

On What Planet?

Peter Beinart writes in the New Republic:

The struggle that initially roiled the Clinton administration–between deficit hawks and deficit spenders–is basically over; today, even the most liberal Democrats are fiscal conservatives.

Stephen Slivinski’s new book does demonstrate that today’s Republicans are bigger spenders than LBJ. But as the National Taxpayers Union notes in its latest rating of congressional voting, the average Democrat still votes for far more spending than the average Republican. Democrats offer no plan to avert the impending insolvency of the Social Security system. They have denounced the Republicans’ trillion-dollar expansion of Medicare on the grounds that it isn’t generous enough.

Even the relatively conservative Democrats at the Democratic Leadership Council recently released a plan to spend hundreds of billions more taxpayer dollars on everything from college tuition to housing to socialized health care for children to McGovern-style “demogrants” for every baby, with no plausible offsetting spending cuts.